OLD ORCHARD CEMETERY AT CAMP PEARY, VIRGINIA
U.S. Congressman Bobby Scott has offered to communicate with the Department of Defense on our behalf about the terrible state of Old Orchard Cemetery, the black burial ground on Camp Peary at the heart of our documentary. Old Orchard is the last tangible remnant of the black community of Magruder (where my father and his parents were born) that was uprooted in 1942 to build the base.
We are thrilled by this news—and we understand that there is no guarantee anything will come of it. Camp Peary is a top-secret training facility; its records—and officials—are largely beyond the reach of most citizens. But this could be a simple matter, of both maintenance and justice. York River Presbyterian, Magruder's white church, and its cemetery, also on Camp Peary, have been beautifully preserved and maintained for more than 70 years. Such treatment honors those who worshipped at the church before the government took the land, and it honors the people interred at the cemetery, including the Unknown Confederate Soldier. Committing to perpetual care of Old Orchard would honor the once-enslaved people and their descendants buried there, including those in my family, whose own church was torn down by base commanders not long after I was born.
EAST END CEMETERY, HENRICO COUNTY AND RICHMOND, VIRGINIA
As he promised this morning, Gary Martel, the executive adviser to the head of Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, passed on my request for an interview to a senior law-enforcement officer in his agency. An hour or so ago, a DGIF conservation police captain, manager for Henrico County and Richmond, called me and promised to look into the incident. "Send me what you have and I'll follow up on it personally," he told me. He gave me his cell phone number.
I’m asking DGIF, a state agency, to investigate the situation as a public-safety matter, because Henrico Police Division will not—and because the hunters may have roamed beyond HPD’s jurisdiction into Richmond.
Fundamentally, the danger that someone might get shot while looking for a relative’s gravesite or scanning the trees for songbirds is real. The next hunting season isn’t far off. And those “seasons” may not even matter. As a different conservation police officer told me over the phone, this group of hunters was most likely trespassing on someone’s property. “I doubt they would have had permission to be there hunting.”
The half dozen or so hunters we witnessed—and heard—on December 13, 2014, roamed across various plots of land with their firearms. If you don't have permission from the owner of the property, you cannot cross that person's land with your gun. The hunters did not have permission to enter at least two of the properties we believe they crossed—I have interviewed the owners, who deny granting permission to any hunters.
“Where did the men discharge their weapons?" I asked in an email to the sergeant who supervises the two responding Henrico Police Division officers.
His reply: “The officers that responded state, that during the entire timeframe that they were on scene, no weapons were discharged, providing them with no personal observation of this occurring. During our conversations you have stated that you heard the shots being fired, but could not provide an exact location of where they came from.” [My emphasis added.] Listen for the boom on the video below at two minutes and 23 seconds. I did not add this gun blast. The officers were there.
I emailed a link to the HPD officers, the supervising sergeant, and their superiors.
This is the sergeant’s reply in full:
“Thank you for your reply. As discussed previously, this investigation has been closed. It has been noted that you possess video of the day in question and if there is ever a time that it is needed, you will be contacted. From this point forward any and all questions in regards to this property or surrounding properties will need to be presented by the property owners themselves. No further information will be presented to anyone without legal standing to the property to protect the owners rights. It is respectfully requested that any email correspondence to the Henrico Police Officer's government email addresses that you have been using regarding this matter, is immediately discontinued and to remain discontinued unless permission is granted in the future by a specific officer. Thank you sir.”
It appears to me that in this case the right of hunters to roam across property lines and shoot stuff unmolested trumps the rights of me and other citizens to visit cemeteries, even private ones, that are open to the public without getting shot.
Although HPD told me an investigation had been conducted, it does not appear to have been an especially thorough one. HPD closed its investigation before speaking to the original complainant, the scoutmaster who called about the hunters, fearing for the safety of his Boy Scouts stuffed in the back of a van. I spoke to the scoutmaster a month after the incident, after HPD had closed its investigation, and he assured me that no official from HPD or Henrico County had spoken to him after that day.
I’m not cemetery obsessed, though it may appear that way from the huge volume of stories and pictures I’m producing in and about such places. Erin and I wind up in burial grounds so often because our search for hidden African American history leads us there. So little was recorded in books, and so much land was taken, that cemeteries, as ramshackle and neglected as they may be, are among the few physical traces of black communities such as Magruder, Oak Tree, and Bigler Mill, in York County, Virginia. And here in Richmond, with the decimation of once-vibrant black communities such as Jackson Ward, East End and Evergreen cemeteries connect us directly to the people, such as bank founder Maggie Lena Walker and Richmond Planet editor John Mitchell, who made black Richmond great so many generations ago.
We go where the history is, and where our ancestors are, just as so many others do—or would do, if they were allowed (Camp Peary), or if they didn't have to worry about getting peppered with buckshot.
We spend a lot of time among the living, too, and we'll write more about them soon. —BP
Just shy of a dozen volunteers appeared on Sunday for the work day at East End—six college students and five regulars.
The students, women from the University of Richmond’s Alpha Phi Omega, raked, wrenched, and lopped branches in a plot where a Martin Luther King Jr. Day cleanup team had worked. Two of the women, exchange students from Shanghai, spoke to each other softly in Mandarin as they worked together clearing a particular tangle of thorny, creeping vines. Volunteer coordinator John Shuck, who maintains the East End Cemetery blog, estimates that he and the volunteers have unearthed and recorded about 800 graves and that they have cleared about 15% of the cemetery itself in roughly a year.
I shot still photos and video for the first two hours, and pitched in for the last three. Erin settled into the dirt immediately. From beneath glove-puncturing, hand-lacerating vines, she unearthed headstones and a couple of aluminum grave markers that look like license plates but are smaller—she has some sort of stone-detecting radar in her fingers and in the soles of her feet.
Erin found a huge stone for Glenn Nelson Jones and also a temporary marker for June Anderson, who died Sept. 9, 1967. And others.
Shuck keeps track of the names, and he photographs every marker and headstone. Objects—the Virgin Mary near the Anderson sign, and the sign itself—he leaves in place. Such things lose their historical, genealogical, or archaeological value when removed from the plot they mark and the people they represent.
In my wanderings, I tripped over a hard lump that hid under a bonnet of English ivy. Charles Watkins’s service in the army earned him a Veteran’s Administration headstone. There are no tender epitaphs on VA stones, only data, which is especially valuable to anyone trying to find the person being memorialized.
I plug his date of birth and place of death (I assume “Richmond”) into Ancestry.com, and up comes a perfect scan of QMC Form 646, Application for Headstone or Marker, signed by his widow, Mrs. Lucille P. Watkins, in July 1957.
I enter into Ancestry the information gleaned from Form 646—notably his correct birth date, November 20, 1896, red-penciled over the incorrect date—and his draft cards for World War I and World War II appear. Watkins was born in Appomattox County, Virginia, and was an unmarried, 21-year-old wagon driver when he first registered for the draft. In 1942, when he registered again, Watkins was 45. He was five feet, six inches tall and weighed 154 pounds. Both cards list his race as “Negro.” More search-engine scouring calls up the 1920 US Federal Census with a “Charles Watkins” of the right age, in the right city . . . I have only scratched the surface, literally at East End and figuratively at my desk, but I’m still astounded that I have learned all of this.
You barely burn any gas driving from East End to Oakwood Cemetery—it's just two or three turns, then a hard right off East Richmond Road through a narrow gate puts you in the Confederate section. (A hard left puts you in the heart of an African American neighborhood.)
We visited Oakwood at sunset after finishing our work day. New knee-high Confederate flags were planted next to the cube-shaped stone grave markers. It is a neat and orderly place, and it should be. The land is owned by the City of Richmond and maintained by its Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities–Cemeteries Operations Division.
State law, specifically a provision in the Code of Virginia, authorizes annual payments to “Confederate memorial associations and chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy” for routine maintenance of their cemeteries and monuments. The state pays $5 ("or the average actual cost of routine maintenance, whichever is greater") per approved grave. Oakwood has upwards of 17,000 Confederate graves, but the Sons of Confederate Veterans are approved for only 2,294 of these. Still, that's real money.
These same Confederate groups may also apply for money to perform "extraordinary maintenance, renovation, repair or reconstruction of any of their respective Confederate cemeteries and graves and for the graves of Confederate soldiers and sailors." The money comes from the General Assembly. Our taxpayer dollars are at work here, keeping the Confederacy alive in public memory—and buttressing Gone With the Wind–type myths that were created to disguise the true nature of the Southern slavocracy.
But, one must give credit where it is due: Oakwood supporters raise private funds to preserve and upgrade the Confederate section. The Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is an IRS-registered nonprofit, a 501 (c) (3), with its national HQ in Columbia, Tennessee. It had more than $8 million in assets in 2013.
Over at East End, most (but not all) of which is in Henrico County, Shuck was figuring out how to pay for the Dumpster we had been emptying bits and hunks of Mother Nature into. It's been on loan from a local business for months—and they've been emptying it, too, for free. Time for others to step up, it seems. —BP
Upwards of 130 volunteers—young, old, and in between—spent a chunk of MLK Jr. Day clearing brush at East End Cemetery in Henrico County (and Richmond), Virginia. The youngsters predominated—students from Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal, Steward, University of Richmond, VCU, and others—but there were plenty of adults, including a team of Virginia State University alums.
Heaps of debris were removed; more headstones were revealed. It was a beautiful day, in keeping Dr. King's spirit of multiracial community. Much was accomplished. Much remains to be done. —BP
“Hunting season is over,” a Virginia Department of Inland Game and Fisheries officer told me a few days ago. It ended January 3 in Henrico County and Richmond. If you see any orange-capped men carrying firearms striding across East End Cemetery, he said, they’ll be breaking the law. So, for now, the danger of a hunter mistakenly shooting a Boy Scout has abated, it seems.
This is great news, because dozens of cemetery-cleaning volunteers have signed up for a special Martin Luther King Jr. work day at East End. (The regular Saturday work day is happening tomorrow.)
Deep breath of relief . . .
And then back to worrying.
The hunters we saw and heard on December 13 may have been breaking the law even then—the VDGIF police officer I spoke to said they were probably trespassing—so it’s possible that this hunting posse doesn’t let “laws” and codes interfere with their armed recreation. Plus: Though deer and bear seasons are over—the last day was January 3—turkey season runs until January 24. On top of that, if you have a hunting license and permission from a landowner, you can hunt feral hogs on private land year-round.
Which means we’re not out of the woods yet, because the hunters may not be either.
I’m still hunting for answers to basic questions about the December 13 incident.
Law enforcement and county and state officials have answered several pressing ones, but there’s a lot we still don’t know.
Here’s a rundown:
Were the hunters obeying the law or violating it?
This question contains several others:
Is it legal to hunt in cemeteries in the state of Virginia?
In Henrico, where the largest hunk of East End lies, hunting with firearms, on private land, is perfectly OK, even in cemeteries.
In Richmond, discharging a firearm, for any purpose (or lack thereof), is illegal. Bowhunting, however, is fine.
Where exactly were the men hunting on December 13—and, specifically, where were the men shooting? East End? Evergreen? Henrico? Richmond?
I do not yet know, and we may never know.
The two Henrico Police Division officers who responded to the incident spoke to our group, but it seems that they credited only what the hunters told them. The officers did not file an incident report, and HPD will not release the name of the person who reportedly granted the hunters permission.
Did the hunters have permission to hunt at East End?
Hunters told me, the officers, and scoutmasters that they had the owner’s approval.
That’s not what the last surviving member of the East End Burial Association, Dr. Earl Gray, told me. The association is listed by Henrico County as the cemetery’s owner.
"Did you grant any hunters permission to hunt there?" I asked Dr. Gray. “No,” he replied.
I asked again. “No,” he said again.
"Have you ever granted such permission?" I pushed. “No,” he told me.
In fact, Dr. Gray says he hasn’t granted permission to anyone to be out there. He told me, however, that he’s not averse to the cemetery cleanup efforts by Virginia Roots and the volunteers. (Families have the right under Virginia law to visit the graves of their loved ones at private cemeteries.)
Dr. Gray, who is 86, also told me how the cemetery came to be in its current, wild state.
“The cemetery went default, and it was unfinancial [sic], and so it was overgrown. And so the folks who had their names in the cemetery did not keep it up, and I didn’t offer perpetual care, so that’s what it is. I have no further information to give to you.”
Who is responsible for the cemetery?
We’re in deep, foggy gray area here. “We don’t bury anyone in there anymore,” Dr. Gray told me, “and at the present time the county is controlling all information about the cemetery. . . . I know the county right now is taking it over, and that’s it.”
That’s not what folks in Henrico say.
“I’m not sure where Dr. Gray is getting his information, but East End Cemetery is a private cemetery. The county doesn’t own it, doesn’t maintain it,” said Mark Strickler, the county’s director of community revitalization. “The families—this is my understanding—essentially the families under state law have access to the graves and can maintain the property themselves, but that’s about the extent of it. There’s no laws—or there’s no state laws—about what happens if somebody abandons a cemetery.”
Not especially cheery news. But there’s some hope. Henrico just launched a “cemetery task force.” Says Strickler, “It’s basically just some internal staff that’s just been asked to look at the issue of private cemeteries. And we’ve had one meeting. So it’s an effort that’s just beginning.”
A small, but promising beginning.
I'll let the sportsmen at FieldandStream.com have the last word.
In response to the eternal question, “Any body [sic] have good luck deer hunting in a cemetery?” ozarkghost wrote, “Not only no but H E Double Hockey Sticks no to hunting in a cemetery!”
“Taking any life in a cemetery seems to me some kind of a sacrilege. I am sure you could find a better place than a cemetery to hunt.”
“I have not had the experience, and I doubt that any hunter would be given permission to hunt in a cemetery,” wrote 99explorer. “I also suspect that a hunter would have more success hunting in an oak grove or apple orchard. Just sayin'.” —BP
It took another round of telephoning, but I finally received a call back from Henrico Police Division. I spoke to a sergeant, the supervisor of the two officers who responded to the pre-Christmas call about a party of armed men hunting at Richmond’s East End and Evergreen Cemeteries, historic African American burial grounds. Boy Scouts from two troops had just arrived at East End to take part in a cemetery cleanup and were greeted with intermittent shotgun blasts.
The sergeant, relying on the officers’ account, told me that the hunters said they had permission to hunt in “the cemetery.” That’s what the hunters told me and the group of volunteers gathered to clean up graves that Saturday. That answer seemed incomplete because the men were roaming two cemeteries, East End and Evergreen, not just one. The boundaries between the cemeteries are fuzzy, as are those between Henrico County and the city of Richmond. East End, while mostly in Henrico, spills into Richmond.
Evergreen is, in fact, privately owned, according to Richmond city records, by a company called U.K. Corporation. It is feasible that U.K. granted permission to the hunters. But such an OK would cover only Evergreen, not East End. I telephoned U.K. and left a message with the contact person, Isaiah Entzminger, Jr., requesting a call back. I will ask him if he granted the men permission to hunt at Evergreen, if so why, and if he plans to grant such permission in the future.
I had heard from East End Cemetery volunteers and read on the Web that East End was “abandoned” or “nearly abandoned.” I assumed that this meant East End had no owners. But when you assume, you make an A-S-S . . . (which I tell my journalism students all the time). Just because the cemetery isn’t adequately maintained doesn’t mean it has no owners, I learned. Henrico County’s Real Estate Assessment Division lists East End Burial Association as the current owner. I phoned and left a message with someone at the home of the burial association contact person, Dr. Earl Gray. I plan to ask him the same questions I will ask Mr. Entzminger.
The sergeant told me that he had contacted Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries the day of our encounter. “If it’s a privately owned cemetery, as it is, and the owner of that property, albeit a cemetery or not, grants permission to anyone they desire to hunt on that land, and it’s in that zoned area, it’s not illegal to hunt there. There were no in violations on that day,” the sergeant said. Regulations on DGIF’s website support this—for Henrico County.
So on paper, hunting in the parts of East End in Henrico appears legal. We're still not sure where the orange-hatted ones were shooting, though. The sergeant promised to have his officers follow up with me, and one has (he left a message; I'll call him back next week).
The City of Richmond, however, is another matter, according to the DGIF: “No discharge of firearms except on approved ranges.” So permission from a landowner or no, if the men were firing weapons on Richmond soil, they were, it appears, breaking the law.
Vivian Coleman, who chaperoned the Boy Scouts on December 13, and worked side by side clearing vines with her grandson, told me her father-in-law is buried at Evergreen. “It could have been any day that my husband could have pulled up with my grandchild” to visit his father’s grave, she said.
These particular details matter. But there are bigger issues hovering above mere permissions. Fundamentally, can you really legally shoot live ammo at mammals in cemeteries that, though privately owned, are visited by relatives of people buried there, historians, birdwatchers, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, students, and other cemetery cleaner-uppers? That seems absolutely nuts to me.
The sergeant asked me a key question, however, for which I did not have an immediate answer: Under what authority do the cemetery cleaners do their work at East End? Who gave them permission? I am waiting for a response from either Dr. Gray or the head of Virginia Roots, the organization that runs the cleanup days.
I want to get to the very bottom of this. I want to hear from relevant Richmond, Henrico, and Commonwealth of Virginia authorities if cemetery visitors will continue to encounter hunting parties on hallowed ground. —BP
At first glance, all you see is a sad little burial ground surrounded by woods—skewed, cracked, and upended headstones; plastic flowers ground into the dirt; a heap of old tires and a massive Dumpster smack in the middle. But what appears to be sad is actually miraculous. You need to know the story.
A little more than a year ago, East End Cemetery was all forest. You could drive past it down the dirt road that leads to another cemetery, Evergreen, and completely miss it. The eagle-eyed, like Erin, might spot exposed edges of headstones and memorials, tiny gray and yellow-white shapes nearly smothered in foliage. The rest of us . . .
Take a few steps out of this clearing, into the trees, and you are in a different dimension. Imagine going for a hike, a Little Red Riding Hood kind of excursion, through tall trees, into and out of a leafy ravine, and stumbling every few minutes over a grave or hunk of funerary stone peeking through the greenery and brownery. Only the whoosh of traffic on I-64, a few hundred yards to the north, prevented the full weight of spookiness from hitting me—that and the company of Erin and a few new comrades with whom I was exploring.
John Shuck, who coordinates cleanup days at East End, estimates that volunteers have beaten back the forest to expose 10 to 15 percent of this historic African American cemetery in the city of Richmond and Henrico County, Virginia. We had taken a break to explore the other 90 percent. Surreal, and heartbreaking, too.
Erin and I had joined a work day. That Saturday our group focused its efforts on a small patch of semicleared ground, maybe 25 feet by 25 feet. Four hours of ripping at vines, snipping branches, sawing limbs, and raking revealed the last corner of a burial plot belonging to the Dickerson family. I had been standing on Mr. James Dickerson’s grave marker, which lay less than an inch below ground, without knowing it as I fought with an especially tenacious root system. Erin saw the stone, and another volunteer swept off the dirt with a broom. This was a small accomplishment, but it felt significant because we, strangers from different backgrounds, had done it together as part of a larger project to reclaim a monument to African Americans in a city and region that seem more invested in remembering dead Confederates and their mythic cause than the rest of us.
We didn’t talk much as we labored last Saturday, a dreary, cold day. But a week before, more than a dozen Boy Scouts chattered the cemetery gloom away as they worked. Watching the boys tug and rake and laugh was nothing short of beautiful. Yes, they were earning credit for this service project. But all the kids we watched—we were videotaping the workday for our documentary, Make the Ground Talk—worked hard, and several understood the significance of their presence. “People whose graves are here, they’re probably happy right now,” a 14-year-old boy told us as he wrestled with an armload of vines. “I think it’s a good thing we’re doing,” another boy, wearing a purple and yellow windbreaker, said as he struggled to uproot the base of a decapitated sapling. “We’re finding people’s ancestors,” he said, thoughtfully. And they were.
We arrived early that Saturday, before the scouts or Shuck, and eased our Subaru toward a pack of vehicles parked at the gate between East End and Evergreen. Something wasn’t quite right. The half dozen or so men we saw were prepared for a different sort of work. They wore woodland camo and electric orange baseball caps. Some carried shotguns.
“Are you guys hunting here?” I asked the first man to look our way. In hindsight, it was a stupid question, given the men’s attire and accessories, but I was having a pinch-me moment. We weren’t in the boondocks, the sticks, or the hinterlands. Downtown Richmond is five miles away; our living room is nine.
The hunter was just as perplexed by us, a perky, multiracial trio of nonhunters. We explained why we there. He didn’t seem to know anything about any cemetery-cleaning day. The man, somewhere in his 30s or 40s, was cordial, and he spoke as if in apology, but with authority and entitlement. His hunt took precedence over anything we might be doing. He told us they’d hunt to the north first, on the East End side of the gate, where the scouts were scheduled to work at 10 a.m., then head south. “Y’all mind getting out of the middle of the road just for about 15, 20 minutes?” he asked me. “Go to the left of the trucks, if you don’t mind. I’m sorry, man.”
“Y’all are brave staying out here while we’re hunting,” another gun-toting man, older, bearded, and less nice, said to us. I wasn’t quite sure whether he was threatening us or simply stating a conviction, but it struck me as an odd comment from a man fixing to fire lethal rounds in cemeteries regularly visited by regular people—Evergreen is the final resting place of entrepreneur Maggie Walker and publisher John Mitchell, two prominent early-20th-century Richmonders.
Hunter #2 also told us that they had permission to hunt there. “There” must have been Evergreen, where we were having our chat, because Evergreen is privately owned. It’s conceivable that the owner, listed in Richmond records as the U.K. Corporation, had given someone the OK for their hunt. But Hunter #1 wasn’t in Evergreen. He was prowling East End, which has no owner, and so no one to grant (or deny) permission.
The scouts rolled right into this urban safari. Their adults would not let them leave the vans. Scoutmasters Alan Meekins and Erik Bodin huddled with Shuck, who told us that this was the first time he’d encountered guys with guns out here.
We were pretty sure we were on the Henrico County side of the border, so Meekins called the county’s police division.
“They claimed they had permission to hunt,” Meekins told the first officer to arrive. And then: Blam! A shotgun blast. Hell of a punctuation mark, one minute into the conversation.
“Interesting,” said the officer, a strapping, ebullient young man. “I’m kind of curious as to why people are hunting,” he told our group. “If they’re hunting actually the cemetery property,” the officer said, “I don’t see how they can actually do that.” We were wondering the same thing.
“The border is actually very, very weird here,” he said, “but we’ll figure out whose property they actually are on and find out . . . if they’re illegally hunting out there, because if they’re hunting a cemetery and it’s open to the public, I could imagine that that wouldn’t be allowed.”
I told the officer that the hunters said they had secured permission from the owners. “Regardless, I wouldn’t want to be visiting my loved one and have bullets go this way, that way, and the other or a headstone damaged by people hunting.”
He and a second officer told us they would let us know what they found out, and then they cruised down the road to meet the hunters. The scouts climbed out of the vans, grabbed tools—rakes and shears and buckets—and set to work. Erin joined the boys; Kiyo, our cinematographer, and I followed the officers down the road to the Evergreen gate.
The two officers spent a half hour or so with the hunters, and then they drove past us without stopping. The hunters followed a few minutes later, but a spotter from their party remained at the main entrance, shotgun leaning against the rear tire of his pickup. He was there after the scouts left, and after us.
I was fuming then, and I’m still upset.
I have no idea what transpired between the police officers and the hunters after the initial handshakes and how-y’all-doins. Officer #2 asked me to move down the road, back toward the scouts, and I complied, eventually, believing they would be speaking to us next.
I don’t know if the officers had valid reasons for not stopping. They may have been racing off to other radio calls—though the department’s incident report log for that day, December 13, doesn’t indicate this.
But there are things I do know: Men fired live rounds near a place were children had gathered, knowing that these children were gathering. I say knowing because I had told Hunter #1 this.
I know that a concerned adult, one legally responsible for these kids, called the police and asked that officers be dispatched to investigate men firing guns within county lines in a cemetery. And I do recall the officers saying they would return and tell us what happened. This would have been the professional and responsible—and right—thing to do.
The officers are white. The hunters are white. The scouts are black. One scoutmaster is white. John Shuck, volunteer Melissa, and Erin are white. Kiyo is Japanese. I am black. I name race here because race matters. In this situation, I cannot say whether race was a substantive or perceptual factor, but it figured in. People might avoid it, others will deny its salience, but race matters in this country. To pretend otherwise in post-Ferguson America bespeaks ignorance or disingenuousness.
We may very well have been protected by the officers. None of the scouts was injured, though we don’t know if they were ever in danger. Erin, Kiyo, and I may have been, along with anyone else visiting graves or bird-watching, like the woman I talked to who turned her car around after she saw the guys with guns.
I called the Henrico Police Division. The representative I spoke to could find no record of an incident report or even a call for service. An agent in communications found the call, but said that “no report was actually taken for the incident.” She offered to leave my contact information for the officers. —BP
We had visited Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery once before, to see the headstones of some of the Hobsons and the Mabens, the two white families related by marriage who at one time owned Brian's great-grandfather, Mat Palmer, and, we believe, his great-great-grandparents, Winnie and Lewis Palmer. This time, we followed Confederate Avenue to the towering granite pyramid pictured above—the Confederate Soldiers Monument, completed in 1869—which we had somehow, improbably, failed to notice on our last visit. The thing is huge—and, in my amateur architectural opinion, ugly and aggressive, even in the soft glow of late afternoon. A number of other people got out of their cars to take pictures and read the various plaques, and I wondered why they were there. Idle curiosity? Ancestor/hero worship? Civil War fandom? Did they know, I wanted to ask (but didn't—too chicken), what the Confederacy stood for, or were they firm in their belief that the Civil War was really, truly fought over states' rights, and that the southern cause was a noble one.
As an outsider in the South, I am perplexed by the persistence of that myth, and the self-delusion necessary to perpetuate it. Though it turns out I'm not as much of an outsider as I thought. Somehow, until fairly recently, it had escaped my attention that one branch of my family is rooted in Alabama (by way of Georgia, the Carolinas, and even Virginia, it seems). And on that branch are more than a few Confederates. The records I've found online are sketchy, but a certain Levi Holloway (born in Georgia circa 1834), whom I believe was my great-great-great-grandfather, shows up on the rolls of the Talladega Camp of Instruction, one of two conscript camps established in Alabama in April 1862. Whether he went on to serve in the Confederate army, I do not know. (I am almost certain that he is not Levi S. Holloway, who fought for the Confederacy in one of the Georgia regiments and is better documented.)
"My" Levi, a carpenter by trade, and his wife, Martha (Millholland, according to one document I've found; also born in Georgia), had at least six children, one of whom, William, married a woman named Emaline Pope in September 1881. Those are my great-great-grandparents. One of Emaline's paternal uncles, Lewis Pope, fought in the Confederate army (Company I, North Carolina 56th Infantry Regiment), as did at least one of her cousins, Coleman C. Pope (Company K, Georgia 40th Infantry Regiment). A maternal uncle, James D. S. Gowens, also served (Company B, Alabama 31st Infantry Regiment) and was apparently taken prisoner when Vicksburg fell to the Union in the summer of 1863. One of Emaline and William's children, my great-grand-uncle Joseph William Holloway, married a woman named Daisy Belle Minton. At least two of her uncles, Reuben Gilbert Minton and Albert Augustus Minton, also served the South (both in Company I, Alabama 19th Infantry Regiment).
Finding all of these Confederates in my attic does not make me any more sympathetic to their cause—far from it. But I can't deny being fascinated by the unexpected, not to say unwelcome connections. I wish I could ask my grandfather if he knew anything about them, but he is present in body only at this point. Somehow his origins had never been clear to me—and I'm not sure how interested I would have been even if I had known. Though I vaguely remember hearing that he was born somewhere in Alabama (Gadsden), I thought of him as a northeasterner. His mother, Lillie Stripling, died, most likely in childbirth, in 1932, when my grandpa was twelve. At the time, the family had left Alabama and was living in Middletown, Ohio, where my great-grandfather (whose name was either Homer Richard or Richard Homer Holloway) was employed as a machinist in a "building construction co.," according to the 1930 census. After Lillie's death, Homer took the kids to live with family in Pennsylvania, but there wasn't enough room at the inn for all of them; my grandfather, as the oldest boy, was sent to live with other relatives in New Jersey.
In my unexamined understanding, that was always where he was from—southern New Jersey, outside Philadelphia—as was my grandma, though they had been living in West Palm Beach, Florida, for decades by the time I came along. My dad was born in West Palm in 1947, and my grandparents divorced several years later. After that, Grandpa Jimmy wasn't around much, and he was never a strong presence in my life. To me, he was a nice man who held my hands and let me climb up his legs when I was little. He was a yacht captain—never his own yacht, mind you; he worked for a succession of wealthy businessmen, ferrying them to Key West or Cape Cod or Maine, attending to the endless maintenance that boats seem to require. He was obsessed with the weather, as captains must necessarily be.
So that is what I associate him with—boats, water, weather. He had a very distinctive voice that I can't describe, and he spoke slowly, though with no trace of a southern drawl (I don't remember whether he said "warsh" for wash, like my grandma did; he might have been too old by the time he was sent to New Jersey to pick up that particular regionalism). It never occurred to me to ask him about his parents, Homer and Lillie. But in the time it's taken me to write this blog post, I've finally figured out where Lillie came from, thanks to a clue in an email my dad sent me over the summer, which I had intended to follow up on but forgot about. Lillie was born in Tennessee, according to the 1920 and 1930 census reports, but her parents were from Georgia. That was as far as I had been able to get. Now, though, if I've connected the dots correctly, I know their names: John Henry Stripling and Jane Cordelia Brooks, married on Christmas Day 1884. And I know their parents' names: Henry Marcus Stripling (born in Georgia in 1829) and Sarah Jane Norman (b. 1835, South Carolina); William Brooks (b. ca. 1800, also in South Carolina) and Margaret Elizabeth Hesterly, his much younger wife (b. 1837, Georgia). In the Civil War, Margaret's brother, John A. Hesterly, fought in the same infantry regiment—Cobb's Legion, raised in Georgia—as Henry Stripling and at least one of his brothers. John was mortally wounded during the battle of Crampton's Gap, in Maryland, and died not long thereafter in a Union field hospital.
From what I've been able to gather so far, these were not especially prosperous people. In their movements south and west—from the Carolinas and possibly Virginia to Georgia to Alabama and later to Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma—they conform to the pattern of fortune-seeking southern migrants in the late 18th century through the Civil War. Levi Holloway (triple-great-grandfather) was a carpenter; Abel Pope (another triple-great), a farmer whose total estate, in 1870, was worth $600. Both, apparently, could read and write. Henry Stripling and William Brooks, also farmers, could not. Henry's estate was worth $300 in 1870; William's was worth $500 (for reference, a neighboring farmer had property valued at $2,200). I've not yet found any evidence of slaveowning—though that would certainly be an interesting twist, wouldn't it?
Neither Georgia nor Alabama was on my mind when we began this project. Not specifically, at least—and certainly not with respect to my own family. Virginians, white and black, are often keen to point out that "things" weren't as bad here as they were "down there." Be that as it may, the Deep South pre–Civil Rights is in my own mind the anti-civilization—a breeding ground of white racism and brutality, injustice and impunity. Much of Douglas A. Blackmon's devastating book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II centers not just on Alabama and Georgia but on counties not far from my ancestors' homes. Tallapoosa County—where from the 1880s into the 1900s the powerful landowner John Pace held African Americans in involuntary servitude on his various farms—is due south of Cherokee and Etowah Counties, where many of my relations are buried (and where, presumably, many still live). Dadeville, Alabama, Tallapoosa's county seat, is just over 100 miles from Gadsden, where my grandpa was born in 1920. Anniston, Alabama, where the bus bearing Freedom Riders was fire-bombed 41 years later by a vicious white mob, is 30 miles away.
I'm not really sure what any of this means yet. My empathy fails me when it comes to white Southerners of the Jim Crow era (not to mention the many decades that preceded it). I have flooded myself in recent years with images, verbal and visual, of white violence, white contempt, white cruelty, white pettiness, white fear, white rage—and I don't feel any closer to understanding the insanity of racism or the injustice of it. And yet it's hardly just to make blanket assumptions about people I know next to nothing about, who lived in another time and place. The rioters in Anniston were white, but so was Janie Forsyth McKinney, who came to the aid of the bus-bomb victims. She describes the scene in the film Freedom Riders: "The door burst open and people just spilled out into the yard. They were practically tripping over each other because they were so sick and needed to get some air. It was horrible, it was like a scene from hell. It was—it was the worst suffering I'd ever heard. Yeah, I heard, 'Water, please get me water, oh God, I need water.' I walked right out into the middle of that crowd. I picked me out one person. I washed her face. I held her. I gave her water to drink, and soon as I thought she was gonna be ok I got up and picked out somebody else." Janie was 12 years old in 1961. —EHP
Last night we attended an open discussion about the "forgotten people" of William & Mary, held in the college's Wren Building, a 300-plus-year-old structure likely built by enslaved people. The "forgotten" are African Americans upon whose labor the college's prosperity rested—from the enslaved, who cooked, cleaned, and even farmed W&M-owned land to raise cash to pay for scholarships for young white men; to the unsung workforce of the 20th and 21st centuries, some from my own family. Folks from the Williamsburg community and the college, including a wonderfully diverse group of students, discussed how the school and Williamsburgers might memorialize—and perhaps more importantly recognize—these people in ways that will endure. —BP
The weather did not favor us on Saturday — it was cold, gray, and damp — but in a certain way that was fitting. We were visiting Snowden, in Goochland County, the erstwhile home of Brian's great-grandfather's last owner. I still haven't grown accustomed to using the word "owner" when describing one person's relationship to another, but such is the ugly reality of slavery — the perversity of it strikes you again and again.
Alexander Maben Hobson, a major in the Confederate Army, owned Mat Palmer, who somehow made his way from Snowden to Richmond (today, a journey of about an hour on I-64 and various winding county roads), where he enlisted in the Union Army toward the tail end of the Civil War. Mat would have been a young man at the time, somewhere in his early twenties, and given how much longer he lived (well into the 20th century), we can surmise that he was strong and fit. You would have had to be strong to withstand the backbreaking labor of the tobacco field. We have read that Maben Hobson was a "kind" master, but kindness went only so far in a slave economy.
Snowden sits at the top of a hill overlooking the rolling countryside, which on Saturday was a mottled green, gold, and red. To the south is the James River, hidden by a line of trees. The tobacco would have been planted in the fields along its banks, in the flat bottomland. It's there that Mat might have lived out his days had the South not seceded. He might also have been sold down the river, literally, or forced to walk hundreds of miles, chained to other men and women, to Georgia or Alabama or Mississippi. "From the 1790s to the 1860s, enslavers moved 1 million people from the old slave states to the new," historian Edward Baptist writes in The Half Has Never Been Told. "They went from making no cotton to speak of in 1790 to making almost 2 billion pounds of it in 1860." One million people. Two billion pounds of cotton.
Snowden's current owner has no connection to the Hobson family. His father, a Dutchman, bought the property in the 1970s, along with the neighboring plantation, Clover Forest, which was the family home of Maben Hobson's wife, Polly Pemberton (b. 1829). We have found little trace of her (though, admittedly, we haven't looked very hard). I did find myself wondering what she might have been like as we stood on the hill looking out over land her husband, and possibly she, had once owned. Even if she was inclined to be kind, how had she been shaped by the power she wielded over other people's lives? How did she respond to the loss of that power? Maben Hobson died before the end of the war (at Snowden, in fact, of some awful fever or another contracted in camp). Polly outlived him by more than 25 years. —EHP
During the Civil War, the city of Petersburg, about 25 miles south of Richmond, was besieged by General Grant's army for nine long months beginning in June 1864. When Federal troops finally succeeded in cutting off Confederate supply lines here, Richmond fell within days.
We haven't spent enough time there to render a judgment, but last night Sycamore Street, in the heart of downtown Petersburg, felt abandoned, as if the residents had been evacuated sometime in the 1950s (though the real economic decline didn't begin in earnest until the 1980s, it seems) and most had never returned. There's evidence everywhere, however, of the city's former glory — in the grand (though peeling) façade of the courthouse, built between 1838 and 1840. —EHP
Yesterday we visited Montpelier, the erstwhile home of James and Dolley Madison, in Orange County, Virginia. Well, we didn't visit the home itself, just the grounds, but we came close enough to the stately (though rather squat, if you ask me) brick manse. What we really wanted to see were the partially reconstructed slave dwellings. What's both fascinating and distressing is the proximity of the cabins to the big house. Enslaved house servants would have known little if any respite from their masters, who were literally right next door. It's clear here, in case there was any doubt, that slavery was both integral and indispensable to the Madisons' "way of life."
• • •
The juxtaposition of the third and fourth photographs is meant to highlight two very distinct historical narratives. George Gilmore, born a slave at Montpelier circa 1810, came to own the small white cabin under the black walnut tree. He and his wife, Polly, lived in it for more than 30 years, from the 1870s until the early 1900s, and raised five children on the property. According to Montpelier's website, it is the only preserved freedman's home in Virginia. When we visited late yesterday afternoon, we were told it might be the only one in the country.
On our way back to Richmond from Montpelier, we drove through the small town of Louisa, where yet another monument to the Confederacy stands in front of the rather worn-looking court house. The inscription on the back reads: "In memory of the courage, patriotism and devotion of the Confederate soldiers of Louisa County, 1861–1865," and then, beneath the imprint of the Confederate battle flag, "Deo Vindice" ("With God as Our Champion"), the motto of the CSA. I don't dispute the courage and devotion of individual Confederate soldiers — though you must ask, devotion to what? — but "patriotism" is a little misleading, in my view. Especially with the American flag flapping in the background, as if these soldiers had, in fact, fought for America. —EHP
A couple of weeks ago, Brian and I witnessed our first Civil War battle reenactment, in Henrico County, Virginia. To be honest, I was anticipating a corny spectacle. I was also dreading encounters with "Heritage, Not Hate" types (those who contend that the Confederate flag is an innocuous symbol of Southern pride, not of white racism and violence). The latter were almost certainly in attendance, but I found my attention wholly absorbed by the United States Colored Troops.
By the end of the Civil War, the USCT comprised nearly 200,000 African American men, accounting for 10 percent of the Union Army. The battle we were about to see reenacted — New Market Heights, which took place on September 29, 1864 — was a pivotal victory for the North. It was also won by African American soldiers.
The reenactment of the battle itself, though impressive (what struck me most was the sheer proximity of the soldiers to one another), didn't move me the way the lead-up to the fighting did. Watching the black troops assemble — segregated from their white fellow soldiers — I felt the magnitude of what they were fighting for. "Freedom" is a word we toss around so . . . freely . . . that it has lost much of its meaning. It can also smack of ignorance and entitlement and petulance and hypocrisy in today's America. But for the men of the USCT, freedom was of the most elemental kind. I felt this in my bones as I watched them line up for inspection and then march out in formation to their position on the battlefield. —EHP